Among the obscure in-adamant objects / life forms used as vessels to tell stories across a CGI medium, Pixar, the groundbreaking technological studio has brought to life children’s toys, insects, fish, imaginary monsters and now motor vehicles. Cars, so originally titled, is the 7th film in the decade plus boundary shift in how animated films are made and not quite the home run like the films that came before it. Still, a marvelous visual display, Cars doesn’t capture the full undivided attention of the viewer the way a talking toy would, once the coast is clear of any humans, or taking a peek behind the curtain into a vast ecological system of monsters on the other side of a closet door.
The novelty of talking cars wears off quickly after the opening montage and highlights narrated by the story’s hero, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) ka-chowing his way to a three-way tie, using his tongue, in a race to win the coveted ‘Piston Cup’ (this world’s Daytona 500) among spectator cars, car announcers and car groupies. All of whom have their own design and personality to be differentiated from the next one. The addition of a human or two would have kept the shine on a bit longer, if you’ve seen one talking car, you’ve seen them all.
A second race is set up to determine the winner of this years ‘Piston Cup’ out in California where the grand prize will be given along with a new sponsorship. Along with McQueen, the hot shot rookie sensation, Chick Hicks (voiced by Michael Keaton) and “The King” (voiced by Richard Petty) race across country on the highway bypassing the legendary route 66 to get to their final destination to gain ultimate glory from coming in first place. The only thing stopping our hero of this film is his own obsessive need to be in first – pushing Mack (voiced by John Ratzenberger) past his limit on the highway instead of taking a much-needed rest.
Written by a small village that could easily make up the small-town America in which Lightning McQueen becomes stranded in, Radiator Springs, Lightning destroys the road in which he is sentenced by the town to repave by Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman). In a way, Cars is a love letter to old America, before corporations took over, and we relied on convenience over courtesy. Radiator Springs is at the mercy of being a detour, forced to change and forgotten in the expansion of modern day living.
Like many towns along the expansive route 66, Radiator Springs becomes trapped in time – neon lights of the businesses bathe the main road in and out of town in the hopes of attracting visitors. And when visitors do come rolling through, it’s for directions on how to get back to the superhighway. Director John Lasseter, who first directed Toy Story is back directing and also serving as 1/6 of the writing team who captures the vintage aesthetic from that era in American history.
In taking a closer look in to Radiator Springs, the town is full of personality. I’d quickly quit the rat race and live in his small town if the inhabitants come with it. Car pun aside, there’s a tow truck named Mater (voiced by Dan Whitney p/k/a Larry the Cable Guy), a Fiat 500 tire shop owner obsessed with Ferrari’s and formula one Luigi (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), his assistant Guido (voiced by Guido Quaroni), a Porsche911 Carrera who operates a traffic cone themed motel Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), an Impala lowrider named Ramone (voiced by Cheech Marin), a conspiracy theorist VW van named Fillmore (voiced by George Carlin), a GM Motorama Flo (voiced by Jenifer Lewis), a military jeep named Sarge (voiced by Paul Dooley), and the town Sherriff (voiced by Michael Wallis).
Pixar proves once again, the biggest strength in their films aside from the technology that creates these worlds is the ensemble cast. But, outside of Lightning, Mater and my personal favorite Luigi, the supporting characters aren’t as memorable as other films. Partly due to too many cooks in the kitchen, the script of Cars is the first chink in the armor by Pixar, not landing in the message the way the team intended. Yes, the message of corporate greed and overpopulation and convivence are sprinkled in, but it’s overshadowed by the focus on Lightning McQueen. Radiator Springs plays home to a Ford Model T (voiced by Katherine Helmond) struggling to keep up with the changing times, becoming a relic of the past.
Geared more to the younger audience, Cars is the first Pixar film to play it safe, never going off the track but staying firmly in its own lane. Plenty of car puns galore, the use of the puns never gets old based on how many car parts can be used to get a laugh. Cars shines the most in its charm, the animation is still at the forefront, pushing boundaries but it’s a black sheep among other films.
Outside of Lightning’s journey of self-discovery away from the fame and fortune finding joy in the little things in life, getting attached to another character is a tough ask. There is plenty to admire about the culture of Nascar and Formula One racing, just put on a race and the thrill of an adrenaline rush will take over. John Lasseter doesn’t shy away from paying homage to legends of racing like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Humphry Wheeler, Marco Andretti, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Michael Schumacher – all of whom have distinct cameos throughout the runtime.
Screenplay By: Dan Fogelman, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin & Jorgen Klubien
Story By: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft & Jorgen Klubien
Directed By: John Lasseter
Music By: Randy Newman
Cinematography: Jeremy Lasky & Jean Claude Kalache
Starring: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Whitney, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, Paul Dooley, Jenifer Lewis, Guido Quaroni, Richard Petty, Michael Keaton
Release Date: June 9, 2006
Running Time: 1 Hour 57 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%